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Torque

Director: Joseph Kahn
Cast: Martin Henderson, Ice Cube, Monet Mazur, Jay Hernandez, Will Yun Lee, Jaime Pressly, Max Beesley, Fredro Starr, Justina Muchado, Christina Milian

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 16 Jan 2004; 2004)

A Quarter Mile at a Time

Having survived his three minutes worth of pseudo-notoriety on MTV’s Undressed, Jay Hernandez has gone on to greater and lesser endeavors. Though he was sharp as Kirsten Dunst’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend in crazy/beautiful (2001), he’s currently reduced to loyal multiculti sidekick in Torque. That is to say, along with Will Yun Lee, Hernandez provides bookends of street-cred color for pretty white star Martin Henderson.


It’s no coincidence that this formula sounds familiar. The producer of Torque, Neil Moritz, also brought you The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious, both of which put Paul Walker in the white boy seat, surrounded by various folks of color, from Asian to black to Vin Diesel. This time, the wheels are generally fewer in number—motorcycles instead of cars—but the element of speed remains paramount. That is, the boys’ bonds, however considerable, are secondary. The point here—again and again—is racing and exploding.


The film begins as Cary Ford (Henderson) rolls back into L.A. after six (apparently very long) months in Thailand, where he was avoiding trumped up drug charges. During his absence, the landscape has not really changed, but his name is turned to mud for everyone but his boys, Dalton (Hernandez) and Val (Will Yun Lee). The first scene has Ford making trouble with some racing cars on an otherwise empty stretch of highway, ending in a daring wheelie in between the cars that had the specially-invited bikers at the preview screening whooping. He goes on to fight them at a gas station, where he sticks up for a cute little kid (Hayden McFarland) and hooks up with Dalton and Val.


Cozy as this opening sequence may be, it’s soon revealed that Ford has other reasons for coming back to the States. He’s looking for Shane (Monet Mazur), a beautiful bike shop owner still fuming that he walked out six months ago (you hear about this six months thing repeatedly, as you also hear references to “Thailand” in connection with sushi and as “chinkland”—both corrected by heroic and politically correct Ford, who knows the differences among Asian cultures).


Complicating our hero’s effort to “make things right” with Shane are his run-ins with a couple of feuding biker gangs, the Hellions, led by macho prick Henry James (Matt Schulze) and the Reapers, led by Trey (Ice Cube). It turns out that Ford has history with Henry James (something about the snarly villain leaving Ford with two easy rider-style bikes with gas tanks filled with crystal meth), as well as friction emerging with Trey’s tetchy brother Junior (Fredo Starr). When Junior turns up dead, Ford is fingered by James’ girl over-pierced, black-lipsticked China (Jaime Pressly), and everyone—from cops to feds to Reapers—believes her. This despite the fact that she’s the surliest, most untrustworthy-acting eyewitness on the planet. Still, there’s something to be said for Pressly’s perversely compelling screen presence: lolling and leaning, the girl is as creepy as she is unpersuasive.


Ford again goes on the run, this time with Shane and the bookend boys in tow (for a minute, renowned “ladies’ man” Val has his own tagalong, played by Christina Milian, though aside from showing her lovely midriff, she has precious little going on here). Aside from posse action by the Reapers and the Hellions, Ford suffers pursuit by a pair of FBI agents, the black-Chucks-wearing McPherson (Adam Scott), who thinks he’s too cool for school, and his infinitely patient, occasionally skeptical partner, Henderson (Justina Machado). As everyone picks up on Ford’s trail at some point or another, the film crosscuts around from crew to crew, as if building “tension.”


But honestly, who cares? At 81 minutes, Torque hardly needs tension or dialogue or even character—the types are so well-worn that they more or less resist complications. When Ford announces that he’s off to beat the bad guys by referencing The Fast and the Furious (“I live my life a quarter mile at a time”), it’s apt that Shane comes back, in faux-weighty close-up, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” In other words, the movie doesn’t mean to be anything more than it is: the movie is essentially a series of riding and driving stunts (some actual and most CGI), one more outrageous than the other, and “plot” (that is, any sort of reasonable cause and effect) only gets in the way.


Among the motorcycle highlights: Ford chases Shane through neon-filled streets; Trey chases Ford atop a speeding train; Ford chases Henry James through city traffic; bikes catch fire, bikes explode, bikes crash through windows and over cops’ heads. The cuts are speedy, the angles impossible, the action cartoonish. None of this should surprise anyone who knows the previous work of director Joseph Kahn. While the loud and silly Torque is his feature film debut, his utter lunacy is established by some 200 music videos, including Eminem’s “Without Me,” Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name,” and Cube’s “The World Is Mine.”


Such formative background—setting images to beats, short-handing story, privileging fashion—is visible everywhere in Torque. The narrative does, of course, wind down to the inevitable rip-roaring showdown between Ford and Henry James (with completely video-game-style riding), but the zanier, earlier climax is more to the point. Shane’s biker chick catfight with China begins with each arranged in front of a “product” hugely placed: China looking mean in front of a “Mountain Dew” ad, Shane’s blond hair blowing before a “Pepsi” poster. They go on to ludicrous stunty violence, lots of wild riding and vaulting off handlebars and over gas tanks. All of which only goes to show that, for all their sneery bonding, Dalton, Val, Trey, and Ford got nothing on the girlies.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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